Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (Nov. 17, 2011): The board’s agenda Thursday night contained two items that were fairly uncontroversial.
One item was the ratification of a new policy on public input for changes in bus fares and schedules. When the board arrived at the item on the agenda, board member David Nacht, who was first to speak to the issue, suggested the issue was so straightforward that the board could vote immediately.
The board unanimously approved the new public input policy, which distinguishes between major and minor changes to fares and routes, and provides a range of ways that the public is to be notified about such changes. The policy also includes a range of ways the AATA will receive the public’s feedback on such changes.
Another item generating little controversy at the board table was approval of an increase to the number of buses running on the Washtenaw Avenue corridor – between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, which is served by AATA Route #4. Again, Nacht led off board discussion on the issue, calling it a “no-brainer.” At the conclusion of his brief remarks, he declared, “Let’s vote!” Others had more to say, but the board eventually approved the increased bus frequency – up to eight buses per hour during peak periods.
Nacht’s apparent eagerness to dispatch with those items with extra efficiency could be attributed to a hour-long closed session the board had held before those votes.
The session was held to deliberate on a request from the American Civil Liberties Union that the AATA accept an advertisement for the sides of its buses that had been previously rejected. When the board emerged from the closed session – held to consider a written opinion of its legal counsel, which is allowed under the Michigan Open Meetings Act – the board voted to affirm the rejection of the ad. The ad includes the text, “Boycott ‘Israel’ Boycott Apartheid.”
In addition to taking those three votes, the board entertained its usual range of committee and staff reports, including updates on a possible transition by the AATA into a countywide authority. Those updates included a report on the second meeting of the U196 – an unincorporated board of a countywide transit authority likely to be formed under Michigan’s Act 196 of 1986.
Another update connected to countywide expansion related to progress on a four-way agreement between Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County and the AATA. The four-way agreement would establish the contribution of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti millage funding to the new countywide authority, and set the role of Washtenaw County to incorporate the new authority.
CEO Michael Ford also announced a $2.1 million federal grant the AATA had received (in addition to a previously announced $2.65 million grant in October) to fund the incremental cost of purchasing hybrid-electric buses.
Thursday’s meeting likely marked the penultimate monthly AATA board meeting for Sue McCormick, who is currently public services area administrator for the city of Ann Arbor. She’s leaving that position to take a job, beginning at the start of 2012, leading Detroit’s water and sewerage department.
Public Input Policy
The board considered a new set of guidelines for receiving input on future changes to routes and fare structures.
The new public input policy replaces an older policy that is described in the resolution as “out of date” and not consistent with the way that AATA currently uses public input for decisions on routes and fares, even though the older policy meets the minimum standards required in order to receive federal assistance.
The policy identifies “major” service changes as those affecting more than 25% of riders of a route, or more than 25% of the miles of a route. A “major” service change also includes changes of multiple routes affecting more than 10% of riders or miles of the regular bus service system. The policy identifies “major” fare changes as any change to the base fare – that is, the full adult cash fare – or any change affecting the fare of more than 10% of fare-paying riders.
According to the new policy, notification of major service and fare changes is to be provided through email subscription, printed brochures, the AATA website, social media, posted notices at bus stops, press releases, specific notification of various organizations (housing, educational, civic, and social services, and senior, disabled and minority organizations), as well as other specific organizations that might have membership that would be affected (high schools and colleges, senior citizen housing, apartment complexes, libraries, government offices, or recreation centers).
After notification, opportunity for public input will be provided through email, telephone, written letters, social media, and face to face. [.pdf of AATA public input policy on fare and route changes]
In reporting out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Sue McCormick said that the policy had been reviewed at the committee level a couple of times. [McCormick was reporting on behalf of committee chair Charles Griffith, who arrived late to the meeting.] McCormick explained that the policy reflects the way the AATA already does its outreach, and said that it goes above and beyond what is required.
When the board landed on the agenda item requiring a vote on the new public input policy, David Nacht led off the deliberations saying that he felt it was such a straightforward issue that the board could vote immediately.
Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the new public input policy.
Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Service Increases
On the agenda was a resolution to authorize a service increase between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti along Washtenaw Avenue – the Route #4 service. The increase, effective Jan. 29, 2012, roughly doubles the frequency of buses traveling along the corridor. The new service levels include up to eight buses per hour during peak periods. [.pdf of Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti schedule] [.pdf of Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor schedule]
David Nacht led off deliberations, calling the increase in service a “no-brainer” and noting that it had been carefully reviewed and argued before the public. The work had been done beautifully, he said, concluding with: “Let’s vote!
Roger Kerson said he wanted to recognize the work of the AATA staff, who called the increase in service a very important improvement. He said it was a good first step in implementing the transit master plan (TMP) with its expanded service. Kerson’s sentiments were echoed by Sue McCormick.
Board chair Jesse Bernstein said that the increase in service levels reflected a decision the board had made to use some reserve funds to get the TMP started right now. [See Chronicle coverage of AATA budget: "AATA to Use One-Time Deficit as Catapult"]
Bernstein said the board had decided to fund the service increase with reserve funds with its “eyes open,” and said it’s the board’s hope and expectation that the AATA will be able to continue that same level of service. Nacht added that the people who pay the Ann Arbor property tax supporting transit should know that Ann Arbor businesses will benefit, many of which are located along the Route 4 corridor.
Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the new service levels on Route #4.
As a part of his CEO’s report earlier in the meeting, Michael Ford had said that Chris White, AATA manager of service development, and AATA community outreach coordinator Sarah Pressprich Gryniewicz had attended a recent meeting of the Ypsilanti city council. The council had discussed the fact that the dedicated millage Ypsilanti now levies to cover the cost of its purchase-of-service agreement with the AATA would not be sufficient to cover the 2013 cost. Ford noted that a gap had been anticipated, but that the gap was larger than expected due to continuing decline of Ypsilanti property values on which the millage is based.
Rejection of Ad
The AATA has a commercial advertising program offering space on its buses, bus shelters, and benches. During its meeting, the board held a closed session related to the rejection of an advertisement proposed by local pro-Palestinian activist Blaine Coleman.
The board held its closed session under the provision of the Michigan Open Meetings Act that allows such a session to discuss a written opinion from its legal counsel. The AATA’s legal counsel, Jerry Lax – an attorney with Pear Sperling Eggan and Daniels PC – was also on hand for the closed session.
There is not a time limit for such closed sessions; however, it was noted at the meeting that the Ann Arbor District Library, where the AATA board holds its meetings, closes at 9 p.m. The board started its closed session around 7 p.m. and took a bit over an hour to deliberate on the issue.
Rejection of Ad: Background on Ad Program
The AATA’s advertising program currently accounts for about $80,000 a year in a budget (approved recently for fiscal year 2012) that calls for $29.4 million in total revenues. But in the past, the advertising program has netted up to $169,000 a year.
When first implemented in 2005, it was hoped to generate $200,000 a year [.pdf of 2005 Ann Arbor News Article: "Some AATA Buses to Be Used as 'Movable Billboards'". Ann Arbor News coverage from that era documents some controversy associated with the decision to offer advertising on buses, as well as the initial implementation that allowed for complete wraps. [.pdf of 2007 Ann Arbor News Article: "AATA to Review Bus Ads"]
The letter received by the AATA from the ACLU about Coleman’s proposed ad lists examples of text from past ads accepted and placed by the AATA:
- “Every 9 1/2 minutes someone in the U.S. is infected with HIV”
- “Two-Faced Landlords Can be Stopped. Housing Discrimination is Against the Law.”
- “Domestic Violence. It happens here.”
- “In Washtenaw County black babies are 3x more likely to die than white babies”
- “Breastfeeding makes babies smarter.”
- “NorthRidge Church is for Hypocrites. NorthRidge Church is For Fakes. NorthRidge Church is for Liars. NorthRidge Church is For Losers.” [Advertiser was NorthRidge Church]
- 2WordStory.com, a website featuring the stories of people who “experienced the life changing love and grace of Jesus Christ.”
- Campaign ads supporting Joan Lowenstein and Margaret Connors for district judge.
Acceptance of the campaign ads, during the 2008 campaign for the 15th District Court judgeship eventually won by Chris Easthope, was apparently a mistake. The AATA’s ad policy states that an ad will not be accepted that: “Supports or opposes the election of any person to office or supports or opposes any ballot proposition.”
The AATA’s advertising policy is administered by the company that sells the ads – Transit Advertising Group.
Rejection of Ad: Letter from the ACLU
The ad that was rejected by the AATA, which is the subject of a letter sent by the ACLU to the AATA, reads “Boycott ‘Israel’” and “Boycott Apartheid.” It also features an image of a spider-like creature with a skull for a head. [.pdf of image and text of proposed ad].
The Aug. 12, 2011 letter to the AATA from the ACLU argues that the AATA’s policy on accepting advertising is unconstitutional. The ACLU does concede that the proposed advertisement “arguably subjects Israel to scorn or ridicule,” which is prohibited under the AATA’s ad policy. [From the AATA policy: "Advertising ... which does any of the following shall be prohibited ... 5. Defames or is likely to hold up to scorn or ridicule a person or group of persons."]
However, the ACLU contends that the policy itself is unconstitutional: “An ad paid for by Israel’s tourist bureau encouraging people to visit the county or purchase its products expresses the opposite view and would be accepted under AATA’s policy. A distinction of this kind, based on the message expressed by the speaker, violates the First Amendment.” [.pdf of ACLU Aug. 12 letter] [.pdf of AATA advertising policy]
A key to the ACLU’s position is a 1998 case involving a labor union that had proposed an advertisement on a regional transit authority’s vehicles. The ad had been rejected on the grounds that it was “too controversial and not aesthetically pleasing.” The case was argued and won by the union in the U.S. Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit. [.pdf of United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 1099, v. Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority]
In that decision, the Court of Appeals included this statement [emphasis added]:
We note, however, that the Supreme Court has suggested that excluding speech because its controversial nature adversely impacts the forum’s other purposes constitutes a reasonable restriction on access to a nonpublic forum. See Cornelius, 473 U.S. at 811, 105 S.Ct. 3439 (“Although the avoidance of controversy is not a valid ground for restricting speech in a public forum, a nonpublic forum by definition is not dedicated to general debate or the free exchange of ideas. The First Amendment does not forbid a viewpoint-neutral exclusion of speakers who would disrupt a nonpublic forum and hinder its effectiveness for its intended purpose.”);
In the United Food case, the court disagreed with the transit authority’s contention that it maintained a nonpublic forum. The court also disagreed with the transit authority’s position on the reasonableness of its exclusion of the ad, saying that even if the advertising platform were a nonpublic forum, it was not reasonable to exclude the proposed ad on the grounds that the ad would interfere with the transit authority’s purpose.
Part of the ACLU’s argument in the case of the AATA ad relies on the idea that the AATA has, in fact, through its past pattern of accepted ads, established a “public forum,” although the AATA’s ad policy explicitly states that the AATA “does not [with its ad program] intend to create a public forum.”
In a similar case in Seattle, the ACLU has now filed a notice of appeal after the federal district court ruled in October 2011 in favor of the transit authority over an ad with the text, “Israeli War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars at Work,” and featuring a picture of children next to a bomb-damaged building. [.pdf of the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign (SeaMAC) v. King County ruling]
In contrast to the AATA case, the transit authority in Seattle at first accepted the SeaMAC ad. Then, when advance publicity about the prospects of the ad’s future appearance resulted in proposed counter-ads, possible demonstrations, and the specter of violence, the transit authority decided not to allow the ad to appear.
Rejection of Ad: AATA Board Response
On emerging from the closed session after a bit more than an hour, board members voted on a resolution that affirms the AATA policy on accepting ads and the decision to reject the proposed ad in its current form. [.pdf of AATA board resolution rejecting advertisement]
The resolution invites the ACLU and Coleman to discuss the AATA advertising policy.
The board did not deliberate on the issue after it returned to open session.
Outcome: The AATA board unanimously approved the resolution that affirms the rejection of the ad proposed by Coleman.
A number of updates were given at the Nov. 17 board meeting, including updates on a possible transition by the AATA into a countywide authority. Those updates included a report from CEO Michael Ford on the second meeting of the U196 – an unincorporated board of a countywide transit authority likely to be formed under Michigan’s Act 196 of 1986.
Ford summarized the content of the meeting, held on Nov. 14, highlighting the description of two district meetings that had been held – in the north middle district and in the north east district. Additional meetings are scheduled through the end of the year. [MovingYouForward.org provides a listing of all meetings.] Ford also reported that a community participation tool had been demonstrated by Dick Carlisle of Carlisle Wortman Associates, an Ann Arbor consulting firm.
Ford also summarized some of the material from the last meeting of the financial planning group, held on Oct. 28.
By way of background, at that Oct. 28 meeting the group heard from Dennis Schornack, a special advisor to Gov. Rick Snyder on transportation. Schornack sketched out the contents of a still “somewhat secret” three-bill package that would establish a regional transit authority (RTA), including Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. Reaction of the financial planning group to the RTA seemed sanguine. The idea of possibly funding transit through vehicle registration fees (enacted on an ad valorem basis) – as an alternative to floating a countywide transit millage – appeared to be the most attractive aspect of the possible RTA.
At that meeting, co-chair Albert Berriz concluded that Schornack’s presentation had thrown the group’s conversation into a state of flux. [More Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw Transit Talk in Flux"]
At the U196 meeting on Nov. 14, Jesse Bernstein (who is chairing the group) told members that the financial planning group was enthusiastic about the idea that vehicle registration fees could serve as an alternative to asking voters to approve a millage. On hearing Gov. Snyder’s proposal, Bernstein said, “We were on it like …,” then paused to weigh alternative sentence completions. [More polite versions include "ugly on an ape" and "white on rice."]
Bernstein settled for “icing on a layer cake.” The “layer cake” funding approach to countywide transit is one in which a countywide millage would be layered on top of existing millages levied in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. [For more detail on various funding and governance models for countywide transit, see Chronicle coverage from December 2009: "AATA Gets Advice on Countywide Transit"]
Another countywide-related update from the Nov. 17 meeting involved progress on a four-way agreement between Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County and the AATA. The four-way agreement would establish the contribution of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti millage funding to the new countywide authority and set the role of Washtenaw County to incorporate the new authority.
The agreement would establish an arrangement for Washtenaw County to incorporate a new transit authority under Act 196 and for the two cities (Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti) to pledge their transit tax funds levied currently for use by the AATA to the new Act 196 organization, once its governance and basis for its funding is clear.
The governing bodies of the four entities would need to sign off on the arrangement. Ford’s written report indicates that the four-party agreement is expected to go before the Ann Arbor city council for discussion at a working session on Dec. 12, with a vote possible as soon as Dec. 19.
Communications, Committees, CEO, Commentary
At its Nov. 17 meeting, the AATA board entertained various miscellaneous communications, including its usual reports from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, the planning and development committee, as well as from CEO Michael Ford. The board also heard commentary from the public. Here are some highlights.
Comm/Comm: Airport Service
CEO Michael Ford reported that negotiations continue with the Indian Trails Michigan Flyer service to establish a contract for service between Ann Arbor and the Detroit Metro airport. Ford said it’s hoped that a contract [which would presumably include a proposed fare] would be ready for review by the board’s planning and development committee in December.
Comm/Comm: Website Development
Mary Stasiak, AATA’s manager of community relations, reported on the status of the new website development. At the board’s Aug. 24, 2011 meeting, board members received a short briefing from John Gilkey of Artemis Solutions Group Inc., which won the bid for the website redesign.
Among the improvements desired by the AATA is a way for staff – who do not have programming skills – to update the website. AATA also wants its new website to be a tool that staff can use to broadcast information to AATA riders via email, text-messaging, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Among the enhanced information the AATA wants available on its website is real-time bus location information that includes a way for third-party developers to create and distribute smart phone applications using AATA’s real-time data.
At the Nov. 17 meeting, Stasiak described how the AATA continued to work with the website developer on two main areas. First, the AATA is working on the agreement, which is close to being finalized, that will make sure all the custom website functionality is owned by AATA and that AATA can make needed updates. The second area is usability testing. The initial part of usability testing, Stasiak said, is to make sure things are in the right place on the web page. [AATA website usability test]
Stasiak explained that an interactive survey task had been developed and that about 70 responses had been collected so far. Some responses had been collected at the Blake Transit Center. Plans are to include a visit to a grocery store to get additional input. It will also be distributed by email and via the AATA Facebook page.
Responding to a question from Sue McCormick, Stasiak said that the email list included people who had expressed an interest in keeping up to date on AATA issues.
Comm/Comm: More Hybrid Bus Funding
CEO Michael Ford announced a $2.1 million federal grant the AATA had received (in addition to a previously announced $2.65 million grant in October) to fund the incremental cost of purchasing hybrid-electric buses. The money was awarded through the Federal Transit Administration’s Clean Fuels grant program.
The announcement means that funds are reserved for the AATA and will be awarded, once the documentation is completed that all requirements are met. Ford anticipated delivery of the new vehicles in August 2012.
Comm/Comm: High-Capacity Connector Alternatives Analysis
CEO Michael Ford gave a clarification on the timeline for completion of the alternatives analysis phase of a high-capacity connector study. Last month it was announced that the AATA had received a $1.2 million federal grant to support that phase of the study. The feasibility portion of the study has been completed, with the conclusion that the corridor – which includes Plymouth Road from US-23 down through downtown Ann Arbor to State Street and southward to I-94 – could for at least its middle portion support public transit that’s higher in capacity than conventional buses. [More Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw Transit Talk in 'Flux'"]
At the AATA’s Nov. 17 meeting, Ford clarified that the timeline for the alternatives analysis phase – in which a preferred technology and route with stop locations would be identified – would take around 16 months if it begins in April 2012. A final report would be expected in August 2013, he said.
Comm/Comm: Paratransit, Grocery Bags
Speaking during public commentary, Christopher Harris began by thanking the board for allowing him to be heard. He said he’d used the AATA since May, and had a great experience up to Nov. 3. On that day, he was doing his grocery shopping, which he does once a month at Kroger. He told the board that his eight-year-old daughter, who accompanied Harris to the board meeting, is his PCA (personal care attendant). He told the board he has Stargardt’s disease – he’s legally blind.
Harris described the events of Nov. 3. He called the A-Ride program, but was immediately refused because of the number of grocery bags – he allowed that in the past he had been told that might happen. The driver then asked Harris if he wanted a “straight meter” ride. [The A-Ride paratransit service is provided through SelectRide, a taxicab company]. Harris said that he then asked for a different cab, which was refused by the driver at the scene. When he then called himself, he was told it was the cab driver’s decision – no.
Harris asked for a supervisor and was put on hold. The public commentary time of two minutes expired as Harris was concluding his remarks. Board chair Jesse Bernstein told him that he wanted to follow up with Harris after the meeting to see what the AATA could do. [The A-Ride paratransit service offered by the AATA is a shared-ride transportation service for those who are not able to ride the fixed route service. There's a limit of "one armload or the equivalent to two (2) grocery bags, or two (2) pieces of luggage." .pdf of A-Ride policy]
Comm/Comm: Local Advisory Council
Cheryl Weber reported out from the AATA’s local advisory council, which provides advice to the AATA on issues related to the senior and disabled community. Highlights included the LAC’s continued work on a driver appreciation program.
Comm/Comm: Center of Independent Living
During public commentary, Carolyn Grawi of the Center for Independent Living thanked the board for its commitment to transit. She also alerted them to the meetings of a Toastmaster group that now meets at the CIL during lunch hours on the first and third Thursdays of the month, from 12:30-1:30 p.m. at the CIL, 3941 Research Drive.
Thomas Partridge spoke at both opportunities for public commentary. He introduced himself as an advocate for senior citizens and disabled people and other members of the public who need courteous and competent transportation services. He called on the AATA board to adopt training programs for all drivers, especially those who provide services to seniors and disabled people – training that addresses not only competence, but also the provisions of courteous assistance to seniors and disabled people.
Partridge called on the AATA board to end discrimination by the SelectRide company. He arrived at the meeting via a ride provided by SelectRide through the AATA’s A-Ride program, he said. The vehicle that provided his ride had 400,000 miles on it, he claimed, and was a make and a model that had been subject to recall. Partridge called for full disclosure of vehicle conditions and maintenance records.
Partridge reprised similar themes at the conclusion of the meeting.
Present: Charles Griffith, David Nacht, Jesse Bernstein, Sue McCormick, Roger Kerson, Anya Dale
Absent: Rich Robben
Next regular meeting: Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor [confirm date]
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